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Nothing but light and the work of Ahmad Canaan

By Bashir Makhoul 2011

I have known Ahmad for over 20 years I have been following the development of his work closely ever since.  Ahmad has always been a prolific artist and can move from one medium to another with ease. This agility, combined with a pragmatic approach to the problems of working and living as a Palestinian artist in Israel has enabled him not only to continue and develop his work against the odds but to play a part in the ever evolving cultural and political project that could be described as ‘becoming Palestinian’.  In this short essay I would like to look at Ahmad’s work as something that belongs to a broader process of perpetual emergence. It would be a relatively simple task to give an account of Ahmad’s identity as a Palestinian citizen of Israel and the ways in which this identity is expressed in his work. The problem with this is that it implies an idea of identity as fixed  and stable. To begin with this is not at all what is feels like to ‘be Palestinian’ and Palestine historically, politically and culturally is far from fixed or stable. Palestine is an idea and a place in motion. This has been its tragedy but also, ultimately, its strength and is what informs the imagery and form of the poetry of Darwish, which is, probably as much if not more than any visual artist, Ahmad’s main inspiration. Take, for example Nothing but Light:


Nothing but light,

I only stopped my horse

to pick a red rose from

the garden of a Canaanite who had seduced my horse

and fortified herself in the light:

Don’t come in and don’t get out . . . .

So I didn’t go in, and I didn’t get out.

Then she said: Do you see me?

I whispered: I need, to be certain, a difference

between the traveler and the road, and a difference

between the singer and the song . . .

Jericho sat, like a letter of the alphabet, within her name

and I tumbled in mine

at the crossroads of meaning . . .

I am what I become tomorrow

and I only stopped my horse

to pick a red rose from

the garden of a Canaanite who had seduced my horse

before I went searching for my place

higher and farther,

then higher and farther,

than my time . . . [1]



I am what I become tomorrow… Even at his apparently most nationalist Darwish always understood the contingency of identity. In particular the precariousness of being Palestinian. This became more apparent in his later work when he began to delve into the infinitely complex machinery of the Arabic language and endlessly take apart and reassemble poetic forms. His later poetry always seemed to be in a state of becoming as though the poem was being formed through the act of reading. As though the lines were constructing themselves “between the traveler and the road” or “the singer and the song”. His attachments to the world, to the places and people in it were not simply described in his work but expressed through the process of writing, through this sense of emergence and movement. Poetry was a medium of time and movement for Darwish and it is in its form that it ultimately represents the vast and restless terrain that lies behind the name ‘Palestinian’. As he said and as all Palestinians can say “I come from there” but rather than settling on descriptions of the place – of what “there” is - Darwish wrote of the act of “coming from”.


To come from a place is not only a statement of origin but also a statement of movement in the present – it is an act. To come from a place is not simply to identify oneself with it – to wear a national or regional label – but also to be moving away from it.  To be coming from is also to become and, presumably, to be going somewhere. It is a deeply ambiguous state produced, in part, by the failures of language when it is entangled in the problems of time and the insufficiencies of ontological syntax.  This is the language of exile, this is where he is when he says: “So I didn’t go in and I didn’t get out”. But in the poem the place is not Palestine but Canaan or, at least, a garden of a Canaanite who has ‘seduced’ his horse – his means of movement.


It was partly the work of Darwish that taught Ahmad Canaan how to think about this place whose name he shared. It is one of the places he comes from, a place from which he is perpetually emerging. The exploration of pre-Arabic culture in by Arabic artists is not unusual for example, the Iraqi artist Jawad Salim introduced Mesopotamian themes alongside Islamic and modernist techniques, the Algerian, Baya Mahieddine, whose work references Berber, Arabic and Andalusian culture, mixing mysticism, paganism and Islamic ornamentation and Mahmood Mukhtar (1891-1934), who became Egypt’s leading pioneering artist and who explored the specificity of his national identity by going back to the Pharonic past. Modern Arabic art is full of ancient references that pre-date the Arab empire and European colonialism through which there has been a striving towards an idea of origin and a cultural and national specificity that derives from it. The point is that this evocation of the ancients is a phenomena of modernity. The exploration of modernist modes of artistic expression coincided with modern nationalism and an interest in origins. It can be linked to the much broader context of the construction of post-colonial national identities but, of course, the evocation of ancient origins can just as easily be used as a justification for colonialism.


Canaan was a real place and it was on the same land that was to be called Israel and Palestine. It is one of the oldest archeological strata of the perpetual national dig in which Israelis, in particular, look for the origin of their entirely modern nation in the bowels of the earth. The shards and ashes of Canaan lie beneath the shards and ashes of the Israelites who like many before and after had a relatively brief, transient Kingdom in the region. The appeal of Canaan is that it predates the Israelites and the Palestinians and as such is an archeological trump card to be used against the nationalist fundamentalists who seem to believe that the land itself gave birth to them. The return to a mythical point of origin advertised by messianic Zionism was really a new spin on modern European orientalist colonialism. It certainly had a familiar ring to colonial Christian ears. It was a cynical tactic but there were plenty of Jewish settlers who actually believed this Messianic schtick. Enough, it seems, to have tipped Israel into the dangerously psychotic state of believing in its own fantasies.


For Ahmad and many other Palestinians inside the ‘48 borders, who have to live in a state that insists that it is and always was the Jewish homeland and defines itself as such, the idea of Canaan at the very least acts as a countervailing narrative. It would, of course, be just as delusional as Messianic Zionism to insist on a return of Canaan founded on archeological evidence. However, the idea of Canaan does go beyond an archaic counter to be used against the imposition of the primacy of ancient Israel in the colonial museums and history books of modern Israel. There is much more than this in Ahmad’s use of the name. To begin with it must be assumed that when we talk of Canaan (the place) we are talking about a modern construct. It is a place that is being produced by its invocation and what is being invoked is not just a place that historically supersedes Israel and Palestine but also one that offers an alternative construct. Whatever else, and this whatever else is an awful lot, Israel and Palestine mean they have also become the names of two irreconcilable nationalisms. So much so that they cannot be reasonably expected to be used together except to describe a conflict of nationalisms arising from a coloniser/colonised relation. As is typical of such a power relation it is extremely asymmetrical but has expressed itself through equally distributed nationalist rhetoric; on the one hand the self justification of the coloniser and on the other a continuing sense of injustice and anger that has become indistinguishable from national identity. At least that has been the situation so far. Ultimately the problem is not really a nationalist conflict but of a brutalising colonial subjugation of one people by another based on theocratic racist principles. Palestinian nationalism has for the most part been reactive as has been the rise of theocratic politics. Palestinian nationalism has failed and will continue to fail to produce a state because it is structurally impossible for Zionism to allow Palestine to exist. Palestinian nationalist leaders have been nothing more than variations of corrupt collaborators negotiating on the size of the crumbs they are allowed to pick up from the floor after the Israeli feast.


The Palestinians inside the 48 borders have always had a different perspective. They have to a great extent been ignored by the Palestinian nationalist movement and abandoned to their fate as a marginalized, barely tolerated Arab minority in the self-declared Jewish state. However they have also been free of the oppressive political corruption of Fatah and opportunistic fanaticism of Hamas. Perhaps because they have been prevented from having power they have remained untarnished by it. Throughout his career Ahmad has managed to develop a complicated, pluralistic sense of identity in the spirit of Darwish. Of course he identifies himself as a Palestinian but also as a Canaanite. The name Canaan offers another place which is equally neither Israel or Palestine and as such a conceptual space for imaging another place that is not infected by colonialism and nationalism.


As a Palestinian citizen of Israel he has been forced to live in the land of Canaan along side its latest conquerors but from this very long perspective it can only be a temporary condition. Its transience, however, is cold comfort to the refugees, the occupied and the third class Arab citizens of Israel all of whom are defined by their lack of rights to the land. This is not sharing. Israel, as a Zionist state that depends upon Jewish demographic domination, is an ongoing project against the indigenous people and non-Jews of the region. This includes the complete negation of the rights of the refugees, the perpetual extension of Jewish settlements, the continued removal of land from Palestinians and institutional racism against non-Jewish Israelis and migrant labor with occasional threats to expel them. These are not unfortunate but curable ills of an unjust colonial situation but are structural, necessary characteristics of a Zionist state. If Israel is to continue to define itself as a Jewish state in perpetuity then it must continue to exclude Palestinians in perpetuity. The conflict against Palestinians is an essential defining feature of Zionism.


The only possible just end to this perpetually degrading state of affairs is an end to Israel’s obsession with its ethnicity, which means an end to Zionism. In order to imagine a future in the region that does not depend upon the perpetual active exclusion of one people in favour of the expansion of another we need to think of it as one place - a single territory that must be shared equally by all its inhabitants. This is ultimately what is being implied by the invocation of Canaan. Not a return but a new non-nationalist construct of the territory that is neither definitively Jewish nor Arab. Given the situation on the ground this sounds like a fantasy - if so then it is an essential fantasy. The alternative in terms of the current reality is a permanent colonial war against Palestinians. There may be enough Zionist Israelis who are prepared to settle for this as the price to pay for a Jewish state but ultimately one can only wonder at the wretchedness of such a vision of the future. And what price the fantasy of a Palestinian state? There cannot be many people left who believe that a viable state is possible and therefore what happens to Palestinian nationalism given this stateless future?


There is increasing evidence that the younger, smarter Palestinians have given up on their attachment to the degraded nationalism of their parent’s generation. They know that Palestine was produced in reaction to the colonial invasion of Zionism and its own bogus nationalist ideology. They know that Zionism won because it was backed by western interests and Israel was a transparently invented nation that remains transparent. The sense of rage at the sustained injustices committed in the name of the continued existence of a Jewish state has not, however, diminished. It is just that the idea of nationalism is discredited and that neither Fatah nor Hamas offer a viable future to the emerging generation. At the time of writing Mubarak has been toppled by Egypt’s equivalent generation and Libya’s aging and insane patriarch is at war with his own people while the Arab youth throughout the middle east are rising against the patriarchal nationalists and monarchs who have dominated the region. In this context Israel looks increasingly anachronistic and absurd against the loss of its typical colonial reliance on the complicity of regional dictators and corrupt elites.


It also offers hope to Palestinians and perhaps those Israelis who want to live in a state that defines itself primarily by its democracy, freedom and justice rather than simply by its Jewishness. The hope lies in the lack of dependence on leaders. From within the Palestinian struggle it is the leaders who have repeatedly failed, it is the leaders who have cynically played the demeaning charade of ‘negotiating’ peace while simply trying to maintain power over their ridiculous fiefdom. In Egypt there seems little appetite for leaders in general and a wish to replace Mubarak not with another man but a genuinely democratic system. This is not an entirely unfamiliar situation for Palestinians who during the 1980s had their own leaderless uprising. It was not Arafat who put the Palestinian people on the world map but the people themselves in the first Intifada. Under the PA they have had another lesson in useless leadership however the lesson from the first intifada and now from Egypt is that it is not just a case of the wrong leadership but perhaps with the idea of leadership itself. The days in which we wish for a saviour who comes riding out of the sunset to redeem the people may, hopefully, be over. This kind of hero is also very western, very Hollywood and it has been interesting to watch the fearful reactions of Western governments who seem to have a morbid fear of ‘power vacuums’ particularly in the Middle East.


The new Arab generation does not need a Salaadin figure to liberate them. In fact the 20th century revival of Salaadin as a redemptive icon in the region was, ironically, appropriated from 19th century Orientalist imagery. In Europe he was romantically depicted as a noble Arab adversary of the Crusaders, despite the fact that he was a Kurd. Canaan’s sculpture of Salaadin in Tamra (2006) indeed looks like the archetypal knight in shining amour and fits within these revived orientalist representations. However a closer look reveals that it is constructed from a multitude of smaller knights. What appears as a conventional statue of an individual hero is actually a kind Trojan horse concealing within its construction an entire army. It is, in fact, less a glorification of an individual than a monument to the power of collectivity. This is not the saviour of the people but the people as the saviour and can be also be understood as a monument to the intifada. However these individual knights have been cut from steel sheets, which leave behind negatives of themselves.


Perhaps Canaan’s most interesting sculptures, constructions and paintings have used the negative image of the knights. A conceptually rich example of this is, A Triangular Window (2008) in which the knights are cut from cubes that have the look of old zinc water tanks. The cut-outs on the sides of the cubes create vaguely arabesque floral patterns while the arrangement of the cubes themselves create another central negative space which is the titular triangular window. The title draws attention to a secondary negative form that is not only literally central but also symbolically central. Canaan wants us to pay attention to the negative spaces – to look at and through them. The parts that are cut out or the gaps between the forms, in other words the parts of the sculpture that are materially absent, constitute the form of the sculpture.


The negative army of knights that has appeared throughout Canaan’s work for the past five or six years seems to have been released by the Trojan horse of his 2006 Salaadin. The silhouetted image has appeared in many works mostly as a cut out form or as a stenciled image in a painting. The repetition of the motif in individual works as well as throughout his oeuvre creates a strong cumulative effect in which the landscapes and portraits are constantly obscured and revealed by this absent hero. It is also part of the strong arabesque streak in his approach to the image. His use of the screen and the mashrabiya plays with the interplay between positive and negative space in the image and with the ambivalent function of these traditional decorative objects that both reveal and obscure that which is behind them. In this respect there is a knowing nod in the direction of colonial fantasies of the Orient in which images of screened harems featured strongly. Canaan extends this to the landscape in work such as Jerusalem Through the Mashrabiya (2008), which partly plays with the orientalist eroticization of the landscape. At the same time he is referring to his own painful proximity and separation from the landscape and in particular to Jerusalem. This is when the silhouette of the knight becomes more openly political in such paintings as Waiting for Salaadin (2008) in which he has become an open space in the mashrabiya. The irony is that although his form reveals Jerusalem he is still part of the screen – part of the thing that separates the viewer from the scene and the painter from the place.


As in the figure in Darwish’s poem, Canaan doesn’t go in and doesn’t go out. The artist and viewer are left in a perpetual liminal state. At the same time it is difficult not to think of Canaan’s knight as a the rider in Darwish’s poem in that he too is always coming from but never arriving. The form of the poem, the flower offered by the Canaanite and the form of the paintings, the decoratively fractured images of the land offered by Canaan are what we are left with. Meanwhile the Mashrabiya lets in nothing but the light.




[1] Mahmoud Darwish (Fady Joudah trans.)The Butterfly's Burden, Bloodaxe 2007

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